Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What General McChrystal May Have Planned All Along

President Obama removed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of American forces in Afghanistan and tapped as his replacement the architect of the 2007 surge in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus. 

None of this is surprising, of course.  The President certainly got counsel from his most-trusted military advisors, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mullen  and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, to the effect that the remarks given by McChrystal and his aides, spoken outrageously on-the-record  to ROLLING STONE Magazine, constituted gross insubordination and disrespect for the chain of command, not to mention contempt for civilian authority.

In fact, McChrystal’s statements were so grossly insulting and intentionally inciting that one cannot simply shrug and attribute them to inadvertent slip-ups, in the macho atmosphere of a war zone.

Now, lest there be any mistake over motives, let me first establish one point: no one has been more vocal, across the last dozen years, in support of the United States Officer Corps, than I have been.  At  senior levels - the generals and admirals - these men and women make up one of the best-educated clades in American life, just after university professors and medical doctors.  Their dedication, discipline and courage are well-noted, but seldom remarked-upon is another fact -- that you cannot rise to flag rank in any service without developing a meticulous eye for detail and a facility for carefully studying the traits of both superiors and those under your command.

Hence, given the advanced warning they had, and extended period over which the ROLLING STONE interviews took place, the notion that all of this was just an aberration -- a momentary lapse into snarky, immature and impulsive gossip -- simply beggars the imagination.  Indeed, to claim that any of this was inadvertent is manifestly an insult to the general, himself.

Another thing that needs to be made-plain is that McChrystal's antipathy for democrats is not universal among his peers.  Indeed, I have long made a strong case that the US Officer Corps should be considered among the top victims of the insanity known as Neoconservatism.  That movement’s relentless war against every reservoir of sagacity and expertise - its one consistent program - has extended far beyond Tea Party populism, the War on Science, and the campaign to demolish and disable the US Civil Service (with effects we now see in the Gulf of Mexico).  It also featured the most outrageous meddling by politicians in military affairs - for political reasons - that we have seen since the Vietnam War.

The harm done by the neocons to the military, and especially the US Army is well-documented; when Bill Clinton left office, every Army and Marine brigade was deemed by military auditors to be  “fully combat ready.”  After George Bush was done, the number of “war ready” brigades was precisely zero.  And though the conversion of our land forces from supremely potent battlefield dominators to bedraggled counter insurgency swat-teams went uncriticized on the right, it contributed to desperate worry among the top members of the Officer Corps.  Well, most of them.

Resentment toward the Bushites finally crescendoed, in 2006, in a fuming, sub-surface rebellion, culminating with Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement, as Defense Secretary, by Robert Gates.  When I also saw that Adm. Mike Mullen was to become JCS Chairman, I knew that the neocons’ fanatically incompetent grip on our military had finally been pried loose... but that is another matter, drifting away from the topic at-hand.

Given that I think so highly of the Officer Corps (with allowances for the inevitable excesses of their testosterone-permeated realm), shall I sympathize with General McChrystal, for being fired?  Certainly his reputation for competence in managing field operations must have made the President’s decision as difficult as it was for Harry Truman to dismiss Douglass MacArthur, after similar levels of disrespect, during the Korean War.  Let there be no mistake, Obama did not want to do this.

But no, this was not (as McChrystal claimed in his public apology) just a lapse. A case of forgivable “stupidity.”  I do not believe that a man like McChrystal does anything without serious contemplation of the pros and cons.  It took weeks and many separate decisions to bring ROLLING STONE to his inner circle. Why, then, has nobody in the mass media even considered the simplest hypothesis --
-- that McChrystal did it all on purpose?

Am I serious?  Well, I do try to see the under-contemplated possibility.  And sure, my contrary quest for the alternative hypothesis can lead me down strange paths.  Nevertheless, in this case, there is ample precedent and incentive for the man to have done all this with full fore-knowledge and intent.
Consider the Liddy-North Effect, named for convicted criminals G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, whose conspiratorial efforts to undermine lawful government should have ensured perpetual infamy, but who instead went straight from prison to cushy roles as ranting hatchetmen in an oligarchy-subsidized punditry. What these men proved is that, unless you are caught eviscerating small animals or children on video, there is nothing -- no misbehavior -- that will prevent a prominent and macho critic of democrats from getting a paid gig on Fox News or Venom Radio.  Indeed, the more choleric, insulting and pyrotechnically disrespectful the behavior, the more likely you will get a plum slot.

Hence, it is with no lack of grudging respect that I predict this fellow will slip comfortably into whatever retirement engagement he has lined up, and we will see his face and hear his voice for the next 20 years, reading whatever talking points are put in front of him, whining - like Ollie North - about his Martyrdom at the hands of cursed liberals.

Hey, you gotta hand it to a tactician, who -- upon approaching inevitable retirement -- maps out the perfect campaign to optimize his results, forcing the hand of his boss, creating a situation where the president has no option at all, but to fire a “fighting general” and send him on his strategically planned way.

Ah, but respect or no, I’ll be glad to see him replaced by someone more typical of the Officer Corps. By a professional.  One who is also a citizen soldier.


The 20 world leaders at an economic summit in Toronto next weekend will find themselves in a country that has avoided a banking crisis where others have floundered, and whose economy grew at a 6.1 percent annual rate in the first three months of this year. The housing market is hot and three-quarters of the 400,000 jobs lost during the recession have been recovered.  Care to learn how it happened? 

This riff about the history of the US energy crisis is both hilarious and informative and demonstrates why it is NOT silly, but indeed heartening that a majority of American young people get a large portion of their news from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart! They aren’t fools.
J.M. Bernstein of the NY Times offers the following: “ More than their political ideas, it is the anger of Tea Party members that is already reshaping our political landscape.  As Jeff Zeleny reported last Monday in The Times, the vast majority of House Democrats are now avoiding holding town-hall-style forums — just as you might sidestep an enraged, jilted lover on a subway platform — out of fear of confronting the incubus of Tea Party rage that routed last summer’s meetings.  This fear-driven avoidance is, Zeleny stated, bringing the time-honored tradition of the political meeting to the brink of extinction.”

Bernstein goes on: “My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.“

Offered up from the left: “The Coffee Party Movement gives voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government. We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans. As voters and grassroots volunteers, we will support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them.”

(Note, I often snarl “a plague on both your houses!” toward BOTH the right and left.  Sure, one side in particular is the worst threat to liberty and enlightenment, right now.  But I remember when it was the other.  I support these “coffee” alternatives.  But always with a wary eye.

=== The Power of Denial ===

Hey, I’m a parent.  I know first hand how natural it is, when confronted with unpleasant facts, to try to deny them away simply with “No, I didn’t!”  Heck it is probably humanity’s greatest talent.  But adults, especially in our civilization, are supposed to outgrow it.

Alas, you can’t beat doubt as a corporate strategy – especially if your product is life-threatening when used as directed”. New Scientist’s latest issue focuses on the Age of Denial. In particular how corporations manufacture doubt through PR campaigns, ads, slogans, hiring scientists & phony grass roots groups….all extensively used by tobacco, coal, chemical, fossil fuel industries.

Finally, a reminder:who wants culture war?  Who promotes it, as the best way to divide and weaken America?  Seriously. When talking to your favorite “ostrich”, mention that Fox is up around 10% owned by a consortium of Saudi princes. The truth.  Ask them why that should be.  And why their paranoia only works in one direction.

“Saudi billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal held meetings this week with  Chairman and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch to discuss investments, including Rotana Media, according to a statement from the prince's office Saturday. The meetings, which took place in New York on Jan. 14, "touched upon future potential alliance with News Corp., the statement said about a deal that would see News Corp. buy 10% of the existing shares in the company could be completed this month.”
Actually, it goes both ways.  Rupert Murdoch is buying 10% of Prince Talal’s media group... and Talal and his peers already own upwards toward 10% of Murdoch’s News Corp, parent of Fox News.  Ah, but smoking gun or no, there’s no effort to even hide any of this, because the populist culture warrior dittoheads will think what they are told to think.  And of course, it’s the liberals who are the traitors.

Okay.  Reminder time.  Cyclically, regularly (and always) keep checking on the Fox News Boycott.  You have a right to make your purchasing judgments based on many criteria.  Including a list of those who advertise with Glenn Beck.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A secret of college life... plus controversies and science!

GraduatingAdvice for college students and graduating high-shoolers. Reflecting on his son's graduation from high school, Science Fiction author David Brin offers inspiration and advice for students going on to college.

Broaden your perspectives and take full advantage of the wealth of educational experiences awaiting you during the next four years. The key is curiosity. Among several tricks offered: explore what is happening in those buildings on campus. Once a month, pick a building and randomly knock on doors! What’s the worst that can happen?  What’s the best?

This one has gone viral, with 5,000 hits in the first day! (Hint: you folks could also spread the word.)  Great (and highly unusual) advice for that bright young college-bound grad.

= OTHER NEWS... then controversy... and science! =

Back in 1985 I was the very first author in Bantam's (Randomhouse) science fiction line SPECTRA. Now this famed, accomplished publishing line is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Time flies and the future rushes upon us.  Congratulations Spectra!

250px-star_wars_on_trial_coverI’ve been on more than thirty television shows. I’ve had one novel filmed and others scripted. But now comes my first appearance on the big screen! The People vs. George Lucas” premieres June 23 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I was interviewed for this provocative documentary -- along with many passionate fans and foes of the popular Lucasian universe.

I’ve already stated my opinion, as editor and ‘prosecutor’ in the book Star Wars on Trial, which offers every pro/con perspective in more detail - a real treat for fans of intellectual dissections of po-culture!   But for a lighter-fun scan, the movie is coming soon to a theater not too far away…

And yet-more podcasts! Especially for TedX Munich, I performed a 10
ambitiousproblemsolvingminute video talk entitled: “Ambitious Problem-solving for the Future” It's too easy to lapse into negativity/pessimism about the problems we face: war, political instability, economic trouble, global warming.  Indeed, vast inequalities of wealth exist across the globe. To keep things in perspective, we should recall that things were nearly always worse in the past. We must develop innovative problem-solving skills to face the complex world of the future – and to raise standards of living across the world. For the first time, the entire world community is able to communicate -- across borders and nationalities -- to share strategies and seek solutions. My favorite aphorism: Criticism is the only known antidote to error.  Identifying errors is the first step toward seeking solutions. But we must keep in mind the goal – to improve our civilization. Technology must be part of the solution.

And now exciting news that I predicted... Andrew Wade, an avid player in the two-dimensional, mathematical universe known as the Game of Life,  posted his self-replicating mathematical organism on a Life community website on 18 May. It sparked a wave of excitement.  And might I note that I foresaw this would happen, in my novel GLORY SEASON?  Someone log in and congratulate him, on my behalf?

 I think it is very important to have a clear, fact-based view of the state of the world.  It may seem superficially to be less caring, when I say that 95% of human beings have it better than their ancestors.  But the opposite is true. We can only attack the huge remaining injustices in the world if we first admit that past efforts have done some good.On the up-side, refuting the stylish cynicism that infuses everything from Tea Parties to “Avatar,” dig the facts: Professor Steven Pinker on the myth of violence: he charts the decline of violence from biblical times to the present. 

= A Transparency Issue in the News =

TransparentSocietyOn the other hand, I’ve long been a champion of openness, e.g. in my nonfiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?   In fact, I’ve long held that some millionaire could do more to save freedom and civilization than any other person on the planet, by funding an entirely new approach to encouraging whistle-blowers. (It really is a cool idea!) Indeed, I was generally approving of the endeavor known as WikiLeaks... an attempt to create a clearinghouse online for people to expose what they perceive as wrongdoing.  

Alas, the core person at Wiki-Leaks appears to be on the run from authorities who want to nail a member of the military who disseminated a large number of of classified documents from his post in Iraq. In fact, the matter is more complicated than it seems, at surface.  (I will opine further on this - informally - under "comments" below.)

= And Now Lighthearted (intellectually satisfying) Fun! =

Go read some of ther terrific “fanfic” or fan-generated fiction out there. Here’s a great example: futurist/scholar Eliezer Yudkowsky’s ongoing series/novel that is both a tribute to - and deconstruction of - J.K. Rowling’s fantasy universe.  HARRY POTTER AND THE METHODS OF RATIONALITY poses an alternate world in which Harry is a genius, not only at magic but also the muggle wizardries of math and science. Oh, and his step-parents, instead of being cartoony/silly villains, were wise, decent and smart.  (In other words, Dumbledore did not commit a horrific crime, but put him with the best muggles he could find, duh?)  The result is a fiercely bright, logical and infuriatingly immature 11-year old prodigy who is loyal to science and progress and the Enlightenment, unleashed on poor Hogwarts School, vowing to up-end that is corrupt, horrific and insular society that is Magical Britain.

orig-11091641It’s a terrific series, subtle and dramatic and stimulating.  I liked especially hearing the vocal rhythms of Maggie Smith in dialogue with Professor McGonnagal. And I (naturally) I loved the dissing of Yoda! Yudkowsky gets it, and lots else. Smart guy, good writer. Poses hugely terrific questions that I, too, had thought of... and a number that I hadn't.  Enjoyed all references to the enlightenment.

I wish all Potter fans would go here, and try on a bigger, bolder and more challenging tale.

= And see Comments for more... =

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Can Libertarian Conservatism Find Its Way?

A fascinating article in Foreign Policy lays out how Ronald Reagan was actually far less of a war-lover or battle-hawk than any of the modern crazies who deify him, screaming his name to justify extreme nonsense.  In fact, both Bushes - father and son - were among the most war-eager presidents in US history, if you add up the number of times they leaped to hurl American troops in harm’s way, sometimes concocting reasons out of thin air.  By comparison, Reagan frequently expressed a deep reluctance to “start counting bodies.”   

This relates to something I have been saying for a long time - that the conservative movement badly needs a counter reformation, an insurrection by reasonable grownups who are brave enough to push back against the forces of bilious unreason and Culture War that have taken over an entire wing of the “left-right spectrum.”  Is there any hope that this might happen?

In the past I have praised John Mauldin as a conservative who “gets” the core fact that markets, enterprise and capitalism were among the top victims of the mad neocon era. Indeed, these bulwarks of the American cornucopia are not the cause of our problems; they have been betrayed and crippled by the same enemies that spoiled markets and freedom in 95% of human societies, across 4,000 years of recorded history.

Now I want to offer you some words from another true-blooded capitalist who sees this basic truth.  In his April 2008 essay, Michael Lewitt began with a quote from Adam Smith that should be etched into the brains of every Wall Street CEO and included in the oath of office of every new member of Congress. Moreover, they should propell every liberal to go out, read Adam Smith, and embrace him as one of their own.

the-theory-of-moral-sentimentsLewitt quotes Smith, who is best known as the author of The Wealth of Nations, but who wrote an equally important book two decades earlier entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith wrote the following:

"This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."

In Lewitt’s words: What Adam Smith pointed out more than two hundred years ago is equally true today – our society, fed by the media, worships wealth at the expense of other values that are far more important to a cohesive and healthy society. The entire mission of The Wealth of Nations was to try to recognize man for what he is – a social animal who is reliant on the good opinions of his neighbors – and to develop the optimal economic system to harness that human essence for the good of all mankind. Smith believed that system was a free market, and history has by and large proven him correct. But th e United States has strayed from a free market model to a system that privatizes gains and socializes losses.

Later in his recent posting (which alas is from a newsletter I cannot share in whole), Lewitt goes on: Much of the crisis could have been avoided had policymakers and investors operated under r ealistic assumptions about how markets and economies work. Several years ago, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan described the failure of interest rates to react in the manner he expected as a "conundrum." We now know that Mr. Greenspan was operating under a false set of assumptions about human nature, as well as a misguided understanding about how market participants behave. As noted in my book, had Mr. Greenspan been an acolyte of Hyman Minsky instead of Ayn Rand, he would have been less susceptible to such a fatal conceit. But beyond that, the real conundrum in modern markets is the continued reliance of investors and policymakers on two false mantras. The first is that markets are efficient; and the second is that investors are rational.

I would put it another way.  The libertarian wing of conservatism ought to be the portion that non-leftist liberals and pragmatic moderates could negotiate-with.  All three groups appear to be motivated by a shared set of general goals.  A dream of maximized individual opportunity and freedom.  An aversion to bossy accumulations of undue power. A belief that unleashed human creativity can solve a vast array of problems and that tomorrow could be better, as a result.  These commonalities ought to make for lively, good-natured debate over the details, e.g. whether to use the state or laissez-faire or a tuned-markets to solve this or that problem.

Why then, are most libertarians instead the most intransigent and obnoxious of fuming dogmatists, contemptuous of practicality or compromise, endlessly reciting nonsensical pseudo-religious catechisms from a dunce-prophetess and railing at the stupidity of their fellow citizens for having committed the unforgivable original sin known as Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

Cajoled by paid shills from the Cato, Heritage and American Enterprise “institutes,” most libertarians and libertarian minded conservatives have been duped into calling government an inherently satanic foe of Manichean dimensions. Indeed, they see civil servants as the only force out there that’s inimical to liberty, something that Adam Smith (mindful of 4,000 years of history) would have found laughable. While worshipping at an altar of private property (coaxed coincidentally by propaganda paid for by billionaires), libertarians thus turn their gaze away from the two desiderata that ought to be the movement’s core focus.

Freedom and fair competition.

These are basic underpinnings of true markets, democracy, science and justice -- and history shows that government can foster them as readily as hinder them.  Just as private wealth can undermine them, and has done so, in nearly all human societies. Only through dynamic confrontation can the private and public realms prevent each others’ worst excesses.  But that fact is too complex ever to be admitted by purists.

Freedom and fair competition.   If these twin pillars again became the main goals of the brighter-right, there would be a shift of tectonic proportions. Libertarians and libertarian-minded conservatives would sever all links to both populist know-nothings and plutocrats.  They would rescue what remains worth-saving, from their hijacked and shattered movement, and thereupon rejoin us at the negotiating table, helping a coalition of civilizaed adults in search of new, agile and creative ways to save civilization.

---------    addendum ------

neoconAnyone care to study this book and report back to us?  Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, by Bradley Thompson, (from the Amazon review) explicates the deepest philosophic principles of neoconservatism, traces the intellectual relationship between the political philosopher Leo Strauss and contemporary neoconservative political actors, and provides a trenchant critique of neoconservatism from the perspective of America's founding principles... Thompson actually lived for many years in the Straussian/neoconservative intellectual world. Neoconservatism therefore fits into the "breaking ranks" tradition of scholarly criticism.

I am told the book is an analysis and critique of neoconservatism from a limited-government perspective.

--------  and a poetical interlude ------

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
 The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

      - William Butler Yeats

I promise to be cheerier next time.

------- PS ---------

I go into much more details about libertarianism, its assumptions and the mistakes that have veered a promising movement off-track. (Note, the Libertarian Party once invited me as a main speaker at one of its conventions.  I think the fellows who invited me were fired!  Alas, so much for open thought.)

See  "looking past political totems" and... "maps of tomorrow"... and...the text of that infamous speech I gave, after which half the audience gave a standing ovation, while defending me as the other half attempted a lynching!